Am I really that scary? This is the question I ask myself each time I encounter someone who, upon discovering that I am blind, suddenly loses the power of speech and the inability to have an intelligent thought. Words are suddenly illusive, so apparently, a silent expression of terror is the default. They might as well say it out loud, OMG, shes blind! What do I do?
Am I being hypersensitive? I ask myself this question too. But in last Sundays New York Times, there appeared validation of my observations in the article, Why Do We Fear the Blind? By ROSEMARY MAHONEY.
The author, who is a teacher of students who are blind, writes about a conversation she had with an otherwise intelligent woman, who wondered how you can actually talk to a blind person. In her mind there existed a substantial intellectual barrier between the blind and the sighted. The blind could hear, yes. But could they properly understand? Its a barrier that Im continually butting my head against. It seems that I spend an inordinate amount of time, trying to prove to the world that even though my eyes dont work, my brain does. It irritates the heck out of me, each time someone infers that because Im blind, I am in the dark about the meaning of a word, a current event, what colors are, or any number of commonplace concepts, definitions, or experiences.
Ms. Mahoney goes on to say, The United States has one of the lowest rates of visual
impairment in the world, and yet blindness is still among the most feared physical
afflictions. Even in this country, the blind are perceived as a people apart. Boy, did she ever get that right. Thats why, when I am in a room full of people who are afraid to engage with me, I often feel invisible. I want to scream, Its okay to talk to me. Its not catching!
Ms. Mahoney quotes blind author Georgina Kleege, a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, when she said, Even the most brilliant sighted person can take a stupidly long time to recognize the obvious: There is usually a perfectly healthy, active and normal human mind behind that pair of unseeing eyes. In other words, just because the curtains are closed, it doesnt mean nobodys home.
Then, once in a while, I am blessed with an experience like the one I had last night. I was dining with friends at a restaurant, when a former client of my X-husbands came over to me and engaged me in pleasant conversation. First, I was gratified that he recognized me, after not having seen me for over 20 years. But more importantly to me, he treated me like any other old acquaintance. There was no fear, no awe, no insensitive curiosity. It was just a natural exchange of pleasantries. How refreshing. I get the same feeling of joy when a clerk in a store talks directly to me, not expecting my companion to be an interpreter. Its rare, but it does happen. For that brief time, I am not apart. I am not invisible. The barrier is down. I am not perceived as having a contagious disease, or other-worldly powers.
While everything written in that article is true, Im so thankful for times, like last night, when its not.